Through a masterful prism of analysis, the book illuminates the complexities and trials faced by individuals within the realm of marriage. By meticulously weaving together historical, cultural, social, and legal elements, this literary gem makes an indelible mark on the ever-evolving dialogue surrounding marriage, gender parity, and social justice in China and beyond.

"Marriage Unbound" by Ke Li is a captivating exploration of the institution of marriage in modern China that intricately examines the interrelationships within it. With meticulous scrutiny of history, culture, society, and law, this thought-provoking book based on extensive field research in rural townships in China’s Sichuan Province, vividly depicts the challenges rural women face in strained marriages. It explores their use of state law to fight for freedom and rights, revealing that the courts neither facilitate divorce nor favor women in child custody and property allocation.
The central theme of the book delves into the dynamics between state law, power dynamics, and inequalities within the institution of marriage in modern China. Through a focused exploration of rural women's experiences within the divorce litigation process and the Chinese legal system, it sheds light on various interconnected aspects. These include the relationship between marital instability and labor migration; the evolving role of marriage as a political institution; the constraints of legal mobilization; the exercise of power within the court system; and the perpetuation of gender inequality in divorce outcomes. The book presents a compelling narrative of Chinese women's relentless pursuit of their rights and justice in the face of a complex and challenging legal landscape. For instance, women in rural China face challenges in asserting their rights, particularly in divorce and landholding cases. State actors contribute to undermining women's rights by reinforcing patriarchal norms. Although women contest certain rights in divorce cases, they remain silent on landholding entitlements due to the institutionalized dominance of men in the Chinese society.
The chapters in the book contribute to the conceptual development of the central argument by introducing and exploring different aspects of marriage and law. The uniqueness of this book lies in its examination of power dynamics within marital relationships. By dissecting societal expectations, norms, and gender roles, the author highlights the tensions and conflicts that arise when individual desires clash with social expectations. The emergence of romantic love as a powerful force in contemporary marriages challenges traditional arranged marriages. However, Li emphasizes that even in love-based marriages, societal expectations and norms continue to shape the dynamics of intimacy. These clashes can lead to power imbalances within marriages, where societal norms and gender roles may exert control over individual choices and autonomy. Li’s investigation not only provides a deep understanding of power imbalances within marriages but also offers important insights into the limited effectiveness of the Chinese legal system in addressing divorce and gender inequalities. It explores how cultural appropriation intersects with state governance, revealing fragmented approaches to legality. Through it, the paradoxical nature of mediation is also emphasized, with informal influences undermining women's rights in divorce cases.
In China, marriage is historically intertwined with state power, as societal expectations emphasize reproduction, family honor, and social stability. This complex interplay shapes marriages, weaving cultural norms, government influence, and individual aspirations into a rich tapestry of relationships. Throughout different dynasties, the state has exerted control over marriage through regulations and norms, aiming to maintain social order and consolidate political power — for example, the practice of imperial concubinage, which showcased the state's control over marriage and relationships. The People's Republic of China (PRC) introduced its first national law, the Marriage Law, in May 1950. The Marriage Law targeted deep-rooted feudal marriage practices, including polygamy, concubinage, arranged marriages, and the commodification of women and girls as brides. By revolutionizing the institution of marriage, the PRC aimed to liberate its people from outdated customs, foster social unity, and establish a modern socialist nation-state. The implementation of China's Marriage Law led to a significant increase in marital disputes, with nearly three million cases brought to courts within two and a half years, predominantly divorce petitions initiated by women. This impact extended beyond the majority Han Chinese population and affected ethnic minorities as well, despite the early stages of the judiciary.
Li provides compelling evidence of how state regulations and societal expectations impact individuals' freedom to marry as witnessed in the implementation of the hukou system. The hukou system's restrictions on inter-regional marriage divided the population into two categories, privileging urban hukou holders with state-sponsored benefits. This disparity in benefits based on hukou status created a significant social and economic gap, making it more challenging and costly for individuals with lower social status to marry someone with a higher hukou status. Ke Li's exploration extends beyond gender roles, analysing broader societal and economic factors that come into play within the institution of marriage. The book highlights the role of marriage as an economic transaction and marriage markets in perpetuating gender inequalities and socioeconomic disparities. The book also explores the pressures faced by individuals to conform to parental desires, highlighting the impact of intergenerational dynamics on marital relationships and power dynamics within families. Factors like bride price and limited property rights reinforce unequal power dynamics, hindering women's autonomy. The book examines the challenges faced by China's grassroots court system when the demand for justice exceeds the system's capacity. Rural men in contemporary China face challenges in adapting to shifting gender roles and relationships. The country's gender imbalance, with approximately 34 million more males than females, is a result of the one-child policy and the dominant cultural preference for sons. In such circumstances, finding a wife, especially in rural areas, is a source of anxiety worsened by women's migration for work. Some families resort to paying human traffickers to find brides for their unmarried sons, but often end up being deceived. These circumstances contribute to husbands involved in divorce cases venting their frustrations on judges and officials. Despite court reforms, there are structural problems in providing equal access to justice.
The book highlights legal activism's pivotal role in addressing inequalities within marriages, focusing on issues like domestic violence, property rights, divorce, and child custody. The story of Wang Guiping, whose marriage is on the brink of collapse due to her husband's affair is an example. Despite infidelity, Wang initially resists the idea of divorce, but later on she endures domestic violence. Women like Wang often leave the courtroom with little or no property, child support, or justice for domestic violence. A systematic analysis of divorce cases in a specific region revealed that women faced unfavorable outcomes compared to men in 75 per cent of the cases reviewed. Child custody disputes predominantly favored fathers, with sole custody being granted to fathers in 85 per cent of the cases analyzed. In property division, judges frequently remained silent, leaving the issue unresolved in 60 per cent of the cases, and when rulings were made, husbands prevailed in obtaining marital property in 70 per cent of the instances. Shockingly, cases involving domestic violence received little attention from judges, with no court decisions explicitly addressing the issue or holding perpetrators accountable in 90 per cent of the cases examined. Despite the presence of laws and regulations promoting gender equality and protecting women's rights, judicial realities often undermine these principles, leading to stark gender disparities in divorce litigation outcomes. This undermines the transformative power of legal advocacy in advancing social justice.
The 2001 amendment to the Chinese Marriage Law had added specific grounds for divorce, including bigamy, domestic violence, and spousal abandonment. Chinese courts now recognize both no-fault divorces allowing individuals to dissolve marriages based on the breakdown of mutual affection or on fault-based petitions seeking divorce with financial compensation for damages caused by the spouse at fault. This raises questions about accommodating alternative relationship models like polyamory and consensual non-monogamy within the legal framework. The book examines acts of resistance within marriages, where individuals assert autonomy, challenge gender roles, and negotiate for greater equality. These dynamics contribute to the ongoing transformation of marriage norms in China. 
The concept of "leftover women," is a reflection of the larger issues concerning legal and gender inequality in China that are explored throughout the book. In recent years, there has been a growing movement in China challenging the societal stigma surrounding unmarried women in their late twenties and beyond. Referred to as "leftover women," these individuals face societal pressure to conform to traditional gender roles and marry at a young age. However, many women are choosing to prioritize education, career, and personal fulfillment over marriage. This movement highlights the changing attitudes towards marriage and the resistance against traditional norms of gender and marriage in Chinese society. Another pertinent issue explored in the book is the property division during divorce in China. Previously, marital property was typically registered under the husband's name, leaving women financially vulnerable in divorce. Recent legal reforms aim to address this inequality and empower women to secure property rights and challenge gender disparities in divorce proceedings. These examples demonstrate the complexities and nuances of marriage in contemporary China, reinforcing the book's central arguments and highlighting the ongoing struggles for gender equality, the impact of state policies on marriage dynamics, and the challenges faced by individuals within marital relationships.
"Marriage Unbound" adopts an interdisciplinary approach seamlessly weaving together historical context, empirical research, and personal narratives to present a compelling narrative that explains the traditional views of marriage, shedding light on the patriarchal legal system and the diverse experiences of individuals within the institution of marriage.
The significance of "Marriage Unbound" extends beyond its relevance to the study of contemporary China. While the book focuses on the Chinese context, its themes and insights have broader global relevance. The issues of gender inequalities, state control, marriage norms, and legal activism transcend borders and resonate with similar challenges faced in various societies.

With its intricate layering of state law, power dynamics, and inequality, Ke Li's "Marriage Unbound" fearlessly uncovers the labyrinthine depths of marriage in contemporary China. Through a masterful prism of analysis, the book illuminates the complexities and trials faced by individuals within the realm of marriage. It urges readers to critically examine the intersections of state power, societal norms, and individual agency that mould the very institution of marriage. By meticulously weaving together historical, cultural, social, and legal elements, this literary gem makes an indelible mark on the ever-evolving dialogue surrounding marriage, gender parity, and social justice in China and beyond.


Trishala S is a Junior Research Associate at the Organisation for Research on China and Asia (ORCA). Holding an undergraduate degree from FLAME University, she specialized in Sociology with a minor in Public Policy. Possessing a profound interest in the intricate dynamics of socio-political landscapes and policy realms, she seeks to dissect their complexities. Her pursuits extend to the exploration of the intersections between gender studies, culture, activism, and legal dimensions, reflecting a multifaceted engagement with pressing societal issues. She can be reached at

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